It is 3:30. I am driving home, and the anxiety building up in my body is palpable. Instead of picking my children up from school and passing seamlessly into the role of mom, I am panicking over my past seven and a half hours.
You see, I am teaching my civil rights unit.
I'll start with the obvious context. I am white. I am female. I am privileged. I teach in a school that is slowly transitioning in demographics towards a more diverse population, yet we are still privileged. I teach in one of the best ranked public school districts in America.
But I remember my own intellectual curiosity as a child, a student, a young adult. My own life in the 99.99% white suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. How diversity was marked by referencing which regions of Europe from whence our fore fathers hailed. How I have realized that my childhood, dubbed "the land of 2% white milk" by a high school friend, was no accident; instead it was the culmination of forces beyond my ability to perceive at the time. (Ironically, when I return home to Cleveland, I do not see this racial segregation any more. In 1999, I found out in my Cleveland State University urban planning class that Cleveland, Ohio was in the top five most racially segregated cities for much of my childhood. At least that is what my professor told me.)
My sense of confusion and frustration as to why the reconstruction perpetuated for so long as my Civil War-crazed father dragged my family from east coast battlefield to east coast battlefield over a five-year stretch of my childhood. My first true sustained interaction with African Americans came when my aunts adopted African American and biracial babies in the mid-90s. I often wondered just why is it that there was (I mean is) such a great divide in my childhood between the races. And this lead to the ultimate question I could never answer: What do I do about it?
These thoughts have turned to something beyond an academic curiosity. It has driven much of my own personal research, and a lot of what I teach. My obsession with the Fourteenth Amendment, my fascination with voting practices in America...
This is why I feel compelled to address the elephant in the room this year. Ferguson. New York City. Cleveland. South Carolina. Baltimore. All of these civil rights protests that are popping up all over the country.
But, let me tell you. This is not a unit for the faint of heart. We talk about things in here that will make people uncomfortable. I teach with a slight sense of terror the whole time, hoping I adequately straddle the line between adequate historical context and genuine dialogue. But an err for caution lands me into an academic discussion that doesn't broach the real world. Not heeding appropriate caution can violate the trust of my students, offend the community, and land me in trouble.
Oh. The stress.
So, I am thinking about the things we discussed in the beginning of my civil rights unit that are controversial and inflammatory, as my students and I identified all of the awful stereotypes my students have seen in school, and the even more despicable stereotypes and racial epithets they have witnessed on the Internet over the past year in particular.
We take this discussion, the prejudiced perceptions of what life is like in city centers like Baltimore, DC, and Ferguson... and we put this in context with an investigative report that WAMU came out with just this week. One that highlights the great racial disparity in felony arrests for assaulting a police officer; a statute that makes getting out of your car to tell the police your girlfriend is pregnant lands you in jail. A statute that finds 90% of the arrested on this charge are African American when that population constitutes only 50% of DC's population. We then roll through over thirty documents, including articles, letters, poems, movies, audio files, and interactive maps. We talk substantive and procedural due process, and the incorporation process. We go state and local, as well as federal. We look at history and current events. It is a whirlwind, and it is controversial. All the while, I am nervous.
I broach these discussions to show my students that racial epithets and prejudices are often rooted in a government policy. For instance, the exclusion of agriculture in the initial Social Security Act kept African Americans from enjoying retirement with security. Housing projects jointly funded by all levels of government funneled African Americans into urban blight and crime while whites placed restrictive covenants into the deeds of their white suburbs. The perception of ghettos as dirty and run-down; in part due to the lack of municipal services offered to citizens who live in these areas. Red-lining by banks to keep African Americans out of white areas compounded by block busting when a family did sneak in... all of these things forced white flight... and now that property values are so low, and African American wealth is at 5% (Wow!) of that of their white counterparts... we are looking at gentrification of these neighborhoods. So these epithets, who benefits from them? Who causes them? How do we fix them? (And I don't really even go into incarceration, welfare, food, and education in inner-city neighborhoods... food deserts, malnutrition, free and reduced lunch, food stamps, welfare... Oh, it's too complex.)
Kids are listening, skipping pre-planned dismissals to classes offered off the campus. Students are asking to come in and attend a class that they are not technically supposed to. Skipping their own lunch to join us.
I have taught this unit in progression throughout the year. We talked about the Mike Brown Case in Ferguson, grifting on resources I found from the #FergusonSyllabus. We talked about race relations, policing work, police and excessive use of force. We have talked about what a grand jury does, and the likelihood of indicting a police officer. (As soon as Freddie Gray's death broke mainstream, I started tweeting resources to add to the #BaltimoreSyllabus. @iteach4change compiled those resources on a GoogleDoc.)
We have commented on racial profiling, on what kids call trolls on the Internet (anonymous bullies) who use exceeding racist language to denigrate peaceful protests, chastise those who critique police practices all while watching vigilantes murdering police officers acting within the capacity of their job... to serve and protect. This is such a hard topic. This collision between the police, with their steadfast and resolute commitment to serving their community, is sullied by the actions of the few who violate their pledge. Charting the boundaries of the institutional barriers that can cause whole communities to succumb to poverty, and with poverty often comes crime. Generalizations are inflammatory, ignorant, and incense those who are offended by it.
Oh, it is stressful.
How do I, a privileged white female teach this narrative in a way that casts light on the negative consequences of history and social policy without leading my students to believe in other stereotypes? How do I maintain an authentic voice? How do I offer history in context so students can understand that human nature is slow to change, that the history of revolutions is steeped in short lived success with long lived backpedaling?
I really want to just convince my students that things have changed, but not to the extent that they see in their own rather affluent and racially diverse school. That these awful racial epithets we identify are rooted in the consequences of social policy, that our collective history is to blame. That post-racial America is not here, but perhaps if we look honestly at our present we can be that change. That lasting change.
And until then, my white suburbanite privileged self will sit and replay all our discussion today. I will second guess myself; fantasize about people upset with me for talking civil rights, for bringing these state mandated curriculum points to their front door in a way that tries to get an honest look at life here in America.
I will rack myself in self-doubt, for this is harder than it looks.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan